Graphic Novels

. March 13, 2013.

Picture in your mind someone saying the following statement: “One of my favorite things to do is to curl up with a good book by the fire.” Chances are, the person you pictured was female. Our culture is just geared that way. Think: book groups. Granted, this is a generalization, but it helps explain why so many boys view reading as a feminine activity. Many boys simply don’t like to read as much as girls do. Most boys would rather do something more active: play soccer, play video games, jump a gorge on their bikes. Read? Forget it. Not interested.

Statistics today reflect an alarming reading disparity. A study published by the Center on Education Policy shows that girls outperform boys in reading
tests in all fifty states. In some states, the differences are double-digit percentages! In Michigan, the percentage of elementary- aged girls who are proficient readers gap widens in middle school, where the scores are 82% to 72% — a gender gap of 10%.

How do we get boys interested in ]reading? Should we give them $10 bills to use as bookmarks? Fortunately, we don’t have to coax them so overtly. Sure, we’re still going to have to bribe them, but not so they realize it. The trick is to give boys literature with subjects that they are drawn to: action, information, 


We also need to consider the other factors that attract boys to a book. Research shows that, when boys go to the shelf to search for a book, they look for the following:
•Cool-looking covers depicting adventure or characters in danger
•Print layouts with generous white space and unusual textual features
•Eye-popping illustrations and graphics
•Series with characters whomthey can follow over time

 Interestingly enough, there is one genre of literature—graphic novels—that has it all. Many parents may think of these books as glorified comics. True, some are. Times have changed, though, and the number of high-quality volumes in this category is significant. In fact, libraries can’t seem to get enough of them. 

Graphic novels come in all shapes and sizes that are appealing to boys. There’s not enough space in this column to review them, but here are some different examples to check out:
Informational books: You Wouldn’t Want to be a Medieval Knight, by Fiona Macdonald. This text is non-fiction, yet is full of humorous action-packed graphics. (This book is actually part of a series covering many subjects.)
Autobiography: The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain, by Peter Sis.
Contemporary Fiction: American Born Chinese, by Gene Yang. This is an intelligent story of a minority boy trying to fit into a majority society.
Adventure and Fantasy: The Bone books, by Jeff Smith. A loveable, cartoonish protagonist goes on a Lord of the Rings-type adventure.
Action, Mystery, and Adventure:
The Adventures of Tintin series, by Hergé, sends many boys back to the library to find the next volume.
Humor: The Adventures of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey. What’s funnier than seeing your principal in his tighty-whities?
Manga: The Japanese-style graphic novels featuring highly detailed action, such as the Naruto series by Masahi Kishimoto.
Recently, this category has gained legitimacy as educators have come to realize howgraphic novels help readers with our ever-increasing multimodal society. In other words, these books contain visual representations to support comprehension.

This function mirrors the real world ]where we see graphic images (and other modes of communication) in place of text all the time. Don’t believe me Take a look at the icons for apps on the iPhone sometime. Have you ever put together a piece of furniture from IKEA? Those instruction manuals don’t contain any words. Graphic novels are keeping us current with our society.

 So once a boy is hooked on graphic novels, will he simply remain stuck in
that genre? Probably not. Given the diversity of this category, parents and teachers can use these texts as a bridge to other genres. A reader who enjoys Garfield comics may be attracted to Bone. If he likes the action in Bone and following characters over a series, then there’s a great chance he’ll love the chapter book Peter and the Starcatchers and the other books in that series by Dave Barry.

The graphic novel can be a powerful tool in encouraging boys to read. It took me until after college to really enjoy reading for pleasure. I credit authors like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum who specialize in action and intrigue. Today, because I’ve found that I actually love literature, I read all types of genres. Who knows, if the graphic novel had gained acceptance back in the 1970s, maybe my teacher wouldn’t have had to confiscate my Mad Magazines after all. 

Jim Keen is a free-lance writer and life-long Ann Arborite. He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabbi (13) and Molly (10). He is the  (URJ Press). He can be reached at